How I Blew My Q Beggars in Paradise

 

How I Blew My Q

Beggars in Paradise

Indian Uprising

Erupting on volcano day, strange gods and distant beliefs.

From Guatemala to Chiapas, Mexico
8th July, 2001

It was second week of our tour through central America. The six of us were now a team. Patrick provided us with relaxed advice on things we might like to see or do in the places we visited without ever imposing anything on us. (Except some 5.30am starts - curse your cruel heart forever, Patrick).

Gita was a voice of reasoned calm, providing detailed explanations of why we should take rest breaks. These were secretly very welcome to the rest of us devil-may-cares. She knew all the secrets of Latin America, connecting Coke, Pepsi, banks, and hydroelectic dams in a way that dazzled us with its simplicity but then passed out of our minds like a half-remembered dream.

Holcan - the random book of plaintiff Swedish squeakings. He sounded like Schwarzenegger on nitrous oxide, and was most famous for trying to string up his hammock with a single strand of washing line. When no one came to the aid of his crashing yell, not knowing if it were some nocturnal Viking ritual that we should not interfere with, he emerged from his room, and sat sad eyed by the pool for a quiet moment, nodded to himself, then declared solemnly "I fall on my arss".

Helena - my thigh slapping humour buddy. Helena was quick witted, competitive and intelligent. These are qualities that I admire, and find provoking. She and I were to spend the two weeks vying for the vital positions of most funny (her), most chicken legs on their body (me, two), best swimmer (me, try harder babe), most white (me, by default, only one perpared to drop his shorts to prove a point).

Carolyn was a superb traveller, tough, yet easy-going, able to talk to people and make friends wherever she went, and the only one not to get sick at any point. She had a sudden, powerful laugh that set us all off every time.

A Volcano in Antigua

Antigua is a colourful old colonial town, full of life and culture during the day - and that stops every night at 10.15pm. There is a curfew on Guatemalans after 10.30 and so they just disappear. This public policy was created to protect us tourists. We are now forced to wander round in the safety of darkened, silent streets bereft of all law-abiding citizens.

Antigua is surrounded by volcanoes, and there is a regular tour to an active one some miles away. Unfortunately, some convicts recently escaped from death row were believed to be hanging around the area. They were probably raiding local farms for muffins. So to climb the volcano, you have to join a tour party with an armed police escort. Holcan and I immediately saw a chance to expend our lives needlessly, and therefore impress the girls, so we were eager to go.

The next morning I found myself struck again by la turista and unable to venture more than ten feet from the toilet. Muttering something about "don´t need to climb some bloody mountain now to see a stinky fire hole" I let the others go.

Apparently it was inspiring: they climbed in the late afternoon to catch sunset from the summit and see the glow of lava in the dark under the sulfurous reek before cascading down the ash slopes of the mountain to arrive back breathless and excited in the late evening.

I don´t take medicines for simple illnesses like diahorrea, preferring to allow my body to work things out for itself. In fact, I have only taken antibiotics twice in my life. Still, it was hard to avoid the ever-helpful Patrick who would come along every so often - I almost expect to see his head popping over the bathroom door now - with offers of immodium plus Mexican generic-brand drugs. But the thought of being bunged up while Don Jose´s Own Brand Ranchero-cillin went to work on me was enough to keep my resolve to remain drug free.

So I spent the volcano day, erupting.

Chichicastenango, Blanket town

XChichicastenango is a large old town famous for its large Indian market, held every Sunday. I knew that the market would be attended by thousands of indigenous people, proud and independent still after five hundred years of white oppression. I wanted to move gently through their lives in a respectful and inobstrusive fashion. Ten seconds after entering the market I was elbowed out of way by a 5 foot granny carrying a sack of blankets larger than she was, all on her head. Out of the way, gringo, there´s trading to do.

Chaos. Lines of stalls stretched in all directions. Everwhere talking, laughing, buying, bartering. Food, tools, wooden crafts, blankets. A riot of colours and patterns, each distinctive of the village, family, language of the sellers. Pots, flutes, masks were thrust into my face and snatched away with another, a better, a cheaper, very cheap, very cheap, you like?

Blankets, shawls, table cloths, clothwork everywhere. It appeared that the entire economy depended on everyone selling blankets to everyone else. There were some tourists, but surely not enough, Helena thought, to buy enough to justify this many. We had not taken into account the pursuit of the exploding saints.

Out of the Sacred Way

We went to the church. The town elders were preparing to bring out effigies of three local saints to sanctify the market, preceded by fireworks and pipes. Indian women knelt on the church steps, swinging incense burners and leading incantations that were Catholic and yet not quite. The fireworks were set on the ground at intervals in front of the procession. There had been civil war here for forty years and when each firework was lit, we discovered what had happened to all the unused munitions. The explosions from each firecracker shook the ground.

The procession moved on. It gave way to nothing. Guatemalans nipped entire stalls quickly out of the way. Tourists were herded into dead ends. There was nowhere to go, no way to escape... except into the blanket stalls... very cheap, muy bonita you like? Which is worse? One more blanket - no - firecracker going subnuclear outside - must stay!

We had learned the truth. The procession served two purposes. Driving away the devil, and reducing the Guatemalan blanket mountain.

Children of Lake Atitlan

We came to Lake Atitlan, high among the volcano peaks of northern Guatemala. We sailed between different Indian lakeside villages. Everywhere little Indian children moved gently up to us and looked up with their deep brown eyes, holding aloft strings of colored beads or native bands. Comprelo, they whispered, buy it, so softly, as if trying to breathe with their mouths just above the water, muy barato, cinco quetzales. Comprelo..." It was almost irresistable. Holcan was most vulnerable, becoming more and more loaded with native clothing, jewellery art, until he looked like one of the ancient Mayan kings inscribed on rocks. I wondered whether they were secretly scheming to offer him as a sacrifice to the volcano later on.

Rancho Chichi

At last we left Guatemala, and I was sorry. A week was far too little for such an interesting place. But at the same time, it was good to be back in Mexico, with comparatively higher standards of living, and where you could buy anything you needed, including the police. We were stopped five times, each time the police or troops saw with increasing outrage that we had no drugs. How could they earn an honest bribe if everyone did that!

Once again my prejudice: I had always pictured Mexico as a flat desert punctuated by lonesome cacti and inhabited by nothing but men with big hats surly and flatulent from a diet of beans and tacos. But Chiapas is inspiring. It is tropical, surely, and so sunny year-round. But it is also high, above 2000m, so cool and green, with Alpine greenery. The climate is that of a good spring day at home, all year, with rain in measure, never very hot or very cold. It is... perfect. We stayed at a Ranch high in the hills in Chiapas, recently set up by a couple of retired Americans. It was a welcome break, and we ate and hiked through the forest, and ate again.

San Cristobal de las Casas

San Cristobal is, like Antigua, an old colonial town high in Chiapas. It is both interesting and fun, as the Mexicans love nothing more than to go out and dance, and even I was tempted to put my liquid hips into service on the dance floor. And once everyone had picked themselves up from laughing, we could carry on.

We visited San Juan, a local Totzil Indian village with powerful Mayan traditions. They are very religious, and their religion has only the vaguest links to Christianity. Some of the men carry long sticks, and are appointed to guard their church against unwarranted intrusion. We could enter only under permit. Inside was a Catholicism like none I had ever seen before. All the church was filled with candles, along the sides in lines along the floor, in front of images of saints who never appear in the papal calendar. All the church was filled with Totzil, chanting, separately, individuals and groups, yet seeming to harmonise, always in their own tongue.

Holy men in white moved from group to group to put their hands over injured hands or arms. We were fascinated, transfixed, and yet aware that we were intruders here in the sacred place of another civilisation. We retreated. Just in time. Four entire coach loads of Mexican hotel guides arrived, disgorging over a hundred northern Mexican hoteliers in town on a toot. They sauntered past the guards with a Latin failure to give a shit and straight into the church.

The Heretic

Photography was forbidden. "Photography of the church or religious festivals is forbidden!" Carolyn was reading out loud from her guide book. We all nodded solemnly, and tried to demonstrate the maximum respect for the local traditions. We were glad we had. On emerging from the church we learned that two tourists had been arrested - only that day! - for taking forbidden shots. Who could these insensitive idiots be, we asked ourselves?

One of them was Carolyn. Noting a large group of men moving in a circle outside the very doors of the church, she had decided that this could never have religious significance. Acting with utmost sensitivity pointed her 35mm with telescopic zoom lens straight at them from ten yards. The rest of us took a step back on hearing the news, caught between concern, and terrible, gut-splitting laughter. Hilarity won, and we could hardly stay standing. Carolyn, released after paying a fine, took slightly longer to see the irony. Suddenly, she could see the headlines, Indian Uprising in Chiapas, Free-lance Photograher held Hostage! A Courageous Stand for Freedom of Speech!

We went to see an Indian family that Patrick knew. They treated us like honored guests, showing us their weaving, tortilla making, and the local drink that they brewed from sugar cane. This last was a firm favorite, and some time we left, strangely loaded with - yes - even more blankets.

Palenque and those Eggs

Our final destination. Palenque. The bus was full now with other travellers. I had found Sara and Rolf, two friends from Cuba, and they came with us in order to get me drunk enough to buy their tent. Better luck next time guys. My digestive system was so super efficient by this time that nothing stayed inside for long. We visited Agua Azul, and Misol-Ha, gorgeous tropical waterfalls, and leapt around in the water. When I found myself straying onto a tropical slimy patch, I nobly warned the others by uttering a high-pitched squeaking noise and fluttering my arms weakly - two classic symbols of manly command.

Palenque is another giant Mayan city, lost in the jungle. Its great pyramids are inhabited now only by howler monkeys and that other fabled denizen of the tropical world, the overheated tourist, known for its daily ritual of wandering in seemingly meaningless circles while cheeping sadly for water.

The ruins here, unlike Tikal, had many inscriptions, detailing such Mayan traditions as preserving strength by not ejaculating, genital piercing, flattening babies´ foreheads with wood, and best of all, sitting in a hot bowl of eggs to gain energy via the rectum.

Again, I ask you, is it a suprise these people died out?

Of course, my group, having wandered in a tropical sun for no good purpose and without adequate protection, went back to camp in order to deliberately poison themselves with ethanol and carcinogenic smoke. So who´s to know.

And so

I´m off to Canada now, largely because I´m dying for some peanut butter. Central America has been great, as has the funky tour. I haven´t laughed so continuously in years. And you, my new friends and travelling companions, as I muttered into my glass at 2am on the last night, my heart pulses for you all, just like a well-egged rectum.

 

 

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Antigua

 

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Chichicastenango

 

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Antonia Weaving

 

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Palenque

 

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Agua Azul

 

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Mexico Route

 


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The Facts

Where I stayed
Antigua: Hotel. Old Spanish colonial building, huge ornate rooms, roof terrace.
Lake Atitlan: Hospedaje Garcia. Wooden cabanas set around a wide garden near the lake.
Chiapas: Rancho Chichi. Wonderful ranch set among pines in the highlands. Horse riding, home cooking.
San Cristobal de las Casas: Hotel el Cerillo. Unique, beautifully designed and decorated hotel, at bargain prices.
Palenque: El Panchan. Cabanas and hammock spaces set in clearings in the middle of a rainforest. Amazing place. With bar and restaurant. Short walk to ruins.

How I got around: Funky Tours. I can't praise Patrick and Catherine's operation highly enough. I have never laughed so much in my life.